The origins of Denver’s annual National Western Stock Show, today one of the city’s biggest tourism draws, date to 1898, a time when American cities competed for the attention of various national organizations in the hope of hosting conventions to bring in revenue. The first stock show helped revive the sagging spirit of a city reeling from the Panic of 1893. The stock show remains such a large draw that a new complex is under construction for the organization as of 2016.
Denver in Decline
Barely forty years old in 1898, Denver boasted a population of more than 100,000 and regarded itself as the hub of the western livestock industry. The Denver Republican touted the Mile High City as “the best cattle center in the west.” That claim—which would be contested by Chicago, Fort Worth, Kansas City, and other meat markets—carried a note of urgency. In 1898 Denver still needed a salve to restore the pride and wealth lost in the 1893 crash in silver prices that had abruptly ended the bonanza mining era. The crash caused pain across the state, but hit Denver particularly hard. The city proper was haunted by unfinished and empty houses; its subdivisions on the outskirts were repossessed by the prairie dogs. An estimated 10,000 people left Denver after 1893, the most since the Civil War.
Reviving Colorado’s flagging spirit was a prime objective of the 1898 stock show. From the earliest days of settlement, Denver booster and newspaper editor William N. Byers had promoted ranching as an economic staple that could survive mining busts. To prove that Colorado could support livestock, Byers established a 160-acre “ranche” on the South Platte River in 1863, with thirty-five acres under cultivation and the rest for grazing. He later helped persuade his fellow newspaperman, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, to buy 72,000 acres and establish the Union Colony in 1870. Byers assured Greeley that his namesake town would become a great ranching center. To encourage agriculture, Byers and territorial governor John Evans founded the Colorado Agricultural Society. The organization bought forty acres east of Denver, in what is now City Park, for a fairground. There the society hosted an annual fair to showcase crops and livestock and honor creative farmers and ranchers. The event helped make Denver the Rocky Mountain West’s major agricultural market city.
In the wake of the 1893 Silver Crash, Coloradans turned to farming and ranching in a determined crusade to restore the good times. Railroads replaced their ore freight with wheat, sugar beets, cattle, sheep, and hogs. In Denver, investors shifted their capital from ore-processing operations to food-processing and distribution facilities. The smells of stockyards, canneries, breweries, and flour mills replaced acrid smelter smoke as agricultural products became more important to Denver than precious metals. By 1900, the total value of Colorado livestock climbed to $40 million, and agriculture was on its way to replacing gold and silver mining as the state’s top industry.
In 1898 Denver boosters used the state’s new agricultural identity to attract the National Stock Growers’ Convention. Local newspapers promoted the event weeks in advance. The Denver Republican characterized it as not just a regional event, but as a meeting of those “whose herds and flocks supply meat for the world.” Civic and business leaders claimed the stock show would ensure Denver’s standing as America’s biggest cattle city. “Denver’s importance as a trading point has long since been recognized by Eastern cattle men,” proclaimed The Denver Republican on January 25, 1898. To support such claims, boosters needed only point to the convention’s list of prominent attendees. It included many of the country’s leading livestock officials, such as James Wilson, US secretary of agriculture; Gifford Pinchot, chief forester of the US Forest Service; R. M. Allen, manager of the Standard Cattle Company based in Ames, Nebraska; and Colonel Hooker, Arizona’s most prominent cattleman.
No event during the convention garnered more enthusiastic headlines than the grand barbecue that was promised to follow the stock show. The January 10 edition of the Republican looked forward to “Six Tons of Meat,” including a “Feast of Quails,” two bears, 150 possums, and—fitting for a feast at a livestock convention—“large troughs” of gravy.
To round out the menu, four buffalo were shipped from a ranch near Cheyenne, and five freshly shot elk arrived from Routt County. Contributions poured in to support the barbecue, including 200 pounds of table salt from Montrose & Gates, 200 pounds of brown sugar from J. D. Best & Co., and 250 pounds of coffee from Miller Osborne Spice Company. Nearly every brewery in the region applied for the privilege of supplying the beverages, but Denver’s largest brewery, Zang’s, won the prestigious honor by offering all of the beer free of charge.
As the big weekend approached, the convention’s Arrangements Committee decorated the headquarters in the Ernest and Cranmer Block at Seventeenth and Curtis Streets with large American flags and placed the head of a large longhorn steer above the entrance. The committee also contacted the directors of Denver’s very successful Festival of Mountain and Plain, and committee members recruited such well-known Coloradans as banker David Moffat and newspaperman Byers for the Reception Committee, chaired by Governor Alva Adams. Byers volunteered to serve as a waiter during the barbecue, which was expected to draw from 20 to 25,000 people. To discourage disorderly conduct and boisterous behavior, Police Chief John Farley assigned extra patrolmen to the barbecue and provided a boxcar to be used as a makeshift jail.
The stock growers’ convention opened on Tuesday, January 25, 1898, with welcoming speeches from Governor Alva Adams and Mayor Thomas S. McMurray. The gathering’s size impressed The Denver Republican, which lauded the convention as the “Greatest Gathering of the Kind Ever Attempted.” The Rocky Mountain News added that “almost every stockman of prominence in the West is here or on the way and the attendance from the Eastern states is far better than the most hopeful expected. The hotels are full to the roof and running over, but there seems to be still room at the top, and as yet everyone is being cared for, though late arrivals are compelled to do some hustling to find a bed.”
The hustling was hardly limited to the quest for lodgings—it also extended to the search for a good deal on livestock. “There are hundreds of men here with cattle to sell and hundreds more who want to buy,” noted the Rocky Mountain News in its Wednesday addition. “And in all the hotel lobbies yesterday cattlemen were busy dickering and talking, but very few trades were made. They are feeling around and getting an idea of prices. The real trading will not come before tomorrow or the day after . . . until a few trades are made and prices established, most of the cattlemen will hold back.” Noting the large delegations of Texas, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming ranchers, the Denver Republican declared the convention as “an advertisement for the city and state that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.”
On Wednesday, delegates established the National Live Stock Association. Three of the five officers were Denver men: John W. Springer, Arthur Williams, and Charles F. Martin. Springer outlined the body’s agenda—regulate quarantine procedures with “the least amount of governmental interference compatible with the general public good,” and maintain equitable freight rates.
A holiday atmosphere reigned on the day of the barbecue. The city courthouse and local banks closed at noon, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy operated on a special schedule, with trains departing for the stockyards every fifteen minutes from Union Station. At the stockyards, hungry throngs of Denverites beat the delegates to the barbecue. A mob of nearly 30,000 people broke into the barbecue grounds and surged forward with a wild roar. Police officers and state militia cavalry troops tried to hold back the crowd, as terrified waiters threw chunks of beef and loaves of bread at the mob.
Fearing a serious riot, the police responded with force. Newspapers in the following days reported episodes of police brutality. One officer stabbed a youth, and others struck men and women with their sabers and clubs. Despite the rapidly deteriorating situation, crowds continued to pour into the Denver Union Stockyards. Looters claimed innumerable beer barrels, 1,000 steel knives, 2,000 tin cups, 50 platters, 25 iron pails, and 25 steel flesh hooks, along with an undisclosed number of cleavers, hatchets, carvers, and beer glasses.
Articles about the disastrous barbecue filled the front pages on Friday, but the delegates already seemed to have forgotten the fiasco. In fact, despite the fervent efforts of Texans, Nebraskans, and Utahans, that very day they chose Denver to host the following year’s convention. The second annual convention of the National Live Stock Association took place January 24–26, 1899. Roughly 1,000 delegates and three times as many visitors attended, but the tone was notably more subdued compared to the previous year. Denver newspapers did not rile up the populace before the event, and no coverage appeared until the convention’s opening day, when The Denver Republican headlined blandly: “Denver is Ready for Delegates. All Preparations Complete for Receiving the Cattlemen.” Unsurprisingly, nothing was said about the Great Barbecue debacle of 1898.
Adapted from Darcy Cooper Schlichting and Thomas J. Noel, “‘Ill-Smelling Bones and a Bad Reputation’: Denver’s Struggle to Stage a Stock Show,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 24, no. 4.